It's late November, 2010. We're in the pool house a few hundred yards from a Savoyard-style villa on a hillside in Talloires, overlooking Lake Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps. It's a pool house by virtue of the fact that it has dressing rooms and is next to a small lap pool, covered over for the season, and a hot tub, open for business year-round — but it would really be more correct to call this a cookhouse. Inside, there's a big, well-equipped kitchen, complete with wood-burning pizza oven; an orchestra of copper pots hangs over the work counter; and a long farmhouse table that fills most of the remaining space. Outside, built into the side of the building, is an oversize wood-burning grill.
The pool house and its villa belong to Craig and Amy Schiffer, whose other residence is in suburban New Jersey. Amy has wisely recused herself from the premises, because Craig — a financial wizard who held executive positions at firms like Lehmann Brothers and Dresdner Kleinwort before opening his own New York City boutique financial advisory firm — is co-hosting, with chef Jimmy Bradley (The Red Cat, etc., in New York City), a long-weekend, men-only 60th birthday party there for his best friend, chef Jonathan Waxman of Manhattan's popular Barbuto.
In deciding how he wanted to celebrate the big event, Waxman considered a number of his favorite restaurants around Europe and America and some favorite destinations (the date falls conveniently in the midst of white truffle season in Piedmont, and he has observed the occasion in situ with ample shavings of that pricey tuber more than once), but ultimately decided that he'd end up eating better food and drinking better wines if he collaborated with his friends and stayed "home." The Schiffers welcomed Waxman and his family frequently to their hilltop paradise, with its postcard view of the pristine lake below and the mountains ringing this Alpine valley, as if it were their own.
Schiffer's email invitation to the event began: "Some of us age gracefully, some of us not quite so gracefully, and then there’s The Dude: he’s made it all look so easy that one can only look upon him with wonder. As unbelievable as it appears, M. Nouveau Beaujolais will be turning 60 this November 15th [the date when Beaujolais Nouveau was originally released each year]. I think that he can safely be called Vieux Beaujolais now — maybe a little vinegary, sour, and smelly with a churlish attitude — but he can nonetheless lead to a rollicking good time!"
Besides Schiffer and Bradley, seven or eight of Waxman's other friends have been able to make it to Talloires for the occasion — among them chef Joey Campanaro (The Little Owl, Market Table); Mark Williamson, who runs the legendary Willi's Wine Bar in Paris; London restaurateur Jeremy King (The Wolseley and The Delaunay, among others); and myself.
The gang has been out shopping earlier in the day in the shops and street market stalls in the storybook old town of Annecy, at the top of the lake, and all hands, under Waxman's direction, attack the raw materials. Schiffer can cook pretty well himself, but he seems happy to let the pros do most of the work — not out of laziness, it seems to me, but out of the sheer happiness of having all this talent, all this camaraderie, all this energy filling his pool house. He is ready to lend a hand when asked, but otherwise, well, he's just enjoying.
The menu practically defines gastronomic excess: oysters from Utah Beach in Normandy; omble chevalier — the delicately flavored wild Alpine char fished from the lakes of Annecy and Geneva — grilled over embers outside; a platter full of wild game birds simply roasted in the pizza oven — a pheasant, a couple of doves, a brace of mallard ducks (his and hers), a few woodcocks, and a partridge; two gratins from the same oven, one of cauliflower in cream with white truffle grated generously over the top, another of potatoes, turnips, onions, and garlic; a salad of mâche, purslane, and miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, sometimes called winter purslane) with persimmon seeds; croûtons of good country bread spread with a mash of the game birds' innards; some nutty tomme de Savoie and other local cheeses; and finally, a straightforward apple tart. A forest of wine bottles crowding the table testifies to the fact that all this food wasn't swallowed dry (a Sauzet Les Combettes Puligny-Montrachet 2008 was the standout).
It went on like that for four days. We ate one meal away from the pool house: The weather was unseasonably warm, so we repaired to the legendary Auberge du Père Bise at the edge of the lake in Talloires and sat on the terrace eating creamed sea urchin, foie gras terrine, and perfect roast chicken with pommes frites and a green salad.
Besides providing us with a good meal and a break from cooking, this visit to Père Bise had special significance for Schiffer and Waxman, since this is where Schiffer's connection with Talloires was forged. As Waxman tells the story, "In 1983 I had bought a Ferrari, which for some reason was parked in London. Craig had just moved to Lehman in London. He had some free time and we hopped in my Ferrari armed with his cash and my expertise and wheels, and punished the three-star restaurants of Europe. One meal in particular was at my perennial favorite, Girardet in Crissier, in Switzerland. Craig announced that it was the best restaurant in the world, which in some ways it was. I then took him on a detour to a former three-star, Père Bise. He vehemently protested that he didn't want to go a “two-star dump,” and pouted on the short trip across the French border to Talloires.
"It was summertime, the lake was shimmering, the grass beaches were filled with half-naked bodies, and we arrived in style at Père Bise. I was somewhat known to the owner, Madame Bise, and she welcomed us with a charm that is still beyond anything most of my colleagues in the restaurant business can summon up. Craig looked around, and feeling less grumpy, swam with me in the clear, emerald waters, and then we had a terrific meal by the lakeshore — omble chevalier meuinière, a dish of foie gras, some fancy appetizer, and, if memory serves me, rack of lamb from the Sisteron. The cheeses in the Haute Savoie are without parallel and we suffered through the little chèvres, the tomme de Bauges, some other cheeses, and then the grand master, Beaufort d'Été. We ate wild strawberries, raspberries, etc., with freshly made ice creams and sorbets. The final desserts were the magnificent gateau marjolaine and the intense chocolate negus. We ended with Michel, the perfect maître d' hôtel, offering us some vieille prune, poire William, and pre-Castro cigars. By that time, Craig had fallen love with Père Bise, Lake Annecy, the mountains, and the food of the Savoie.
"The next day, as we biked around the lake and had lunch, I had the feeling he wanted to stay. Soon afterwards, Craig and his wife, Amy, who spoke French, and who, too, was instantly smitten with Talloires, bought their gorgeous mountainside villa."
Our lunches and dinners back at the house blend together in my memory after four-plus years (this wasn't the kind of occasion where I wanted to take notes), but I remember homemade buckwheat blinis with heaps of Oscietra caviar; platters of thin-sliced assorted local salami-like sausages; paella made on the outdoor grill with rabbit, chicken, and local diot sausages (and a crisp-fried paella cake made from the leftovers the next day); roast saddle and chops of lamb; homemade pappardelle buried in white truffle; risotto made with the pickings off the bones of our wild game birds; gratins of cardoons (with more white truffles) and escarole with salt pork and onions; a big salad of frisée, lardons, and fingerling potatoes; endless cheeses, endless wines — magnums of 1999 Clos Cazals Champagne, 2007 and 2008 Sauzet Bâtard-Montrachet, 2005 Pio Cesare Barolo in magnum, 2001 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2007 Château Triennes, 2004 Château Calon-Ségur, assorted magnums of Savoyard mondeuse and chignin-bergeron, bottles of eau-de-vie (poire Williams, vieille prune)…
I can also summon up snapshots of certain moments: Campanaro looking at a white truffle as big as a tennis ball and pulling some eggs out of the refrigerator and flour out of the cupboard and making perfect pappardelle in about five minutes; Waxman drifting off into sleep after lunch one afternoon and then starting awake and announcing "I'm going to make some puff pastry;" Waxman handing me another huge truffle, pointing to the cauliflower gratin just out of the oven, and saying "Don't stop grating until it's gone;" Schiffer sitting at the table before dinner one night, Champagne and caviar before him, with a slight contented smile on his face, lost in a reverie, as if imagining, and savoring, the pleasures he was about to dive into.
Craig Schiffer loved diving in. He loved eating and drinking good food with his friends and family, and he was heroically generous with them (everyone contributed to the raw materials for the pool house meals, but Schiffer did the heavy lifting — the caviar, the truffles, some of the best wines). He also loved challenging the mountains that surrounded his hilltop Eden — hiking, mountain biking, and, above all, skiing them. On December 23, 2014, schussing off-piste down a slope in Val Thorens, about 60 miles southeast of Talloires, he was caught by an avalanche and buried for 15 minutes. He died in the hospital in Grenoble.